Size, zoning, traffic concerns halt plan for senior housing and retail development
A developer with local ties will need to go back to the drawing board after the City Council on Monday rejected his grand plan for a senior condominium and retail project on Everton Avenue North.
Michial Mularoni is part of a group that owns the land just east of Havelka Court and the Cub Foods plaza in western Forest Lake.
He first brought a development concept before the city in 2006. Two years later, he proposed a specific project: Everton Commons, a 7.24-acre campus with two four-story senior condos and an 18,000-square-foot commercial and retail center.
The preliminary plan in 2008 won the favor of the Planning Commission, which approved changes in zoning and the comprehensive land use plan, as well as a preliminary plat and the preliminary planned use development.
However, City Council members felt differently. While supporting the commercial aspect of the Everton Commons proposal, they said the high-density residential aspect would create traffic problems and represent too abrupt of a transition from the adjacent single-family neighborhood.
Rather than reject it outright, however, the council tabled the proposal at that time and advised Mularoni to work with neighboring residents and bring back a revised plan that addressed stated concerns. At the city’s request, Mularoni waived state-mandated time requirements regarding the city’s processing of the land use application.
Neighborhood meetings were held and Mularoni’s revised project came back to the city this spring. This time, the senior housing portion of Everton Commons was presented as one building, pushed south and east as far away from neighboring residences as possible. The half facing the neighborhood included three floors and the back half four.
City staff brought the council up to speed at a workshop last Tuesday. At this Monday’s regular meeting, residents sounded off during a public hearing. Mularoni’s revisions did little, if anything, to appease those who spoke.
“We’re the taxpayers, we’re the ones that live around there, we’re the ones that would see this location every single day as long as we live in that location,” Havelka Court resident Rob Cully said. “It doesn’t make sense. The transition is horrible. A four-story facility, a very small parcel of land does not make sense. It’s a bad choice. It may work in a different location; this is not a good location for what is being proposed at this time.”
Others cited traffic concerns in what they described as a close-knit, family-centered neighborhood.
“When you’re going for a walk with your kids or trying to take them on a bike ride, you literally have to stop and jump into someone’s yard when a car drives by,” said Dianna Linehan, who also lives on Havelka Court. “I can’t imagine what it would be like with all the extra traffic.”
Everton Bay resident Brenda LaTourell said she did not envision living close to such a facility when she moved back to her hometown to raise her family.
“As a real estate appraiser and a real estate agent, I know that this would severely impact the value of our home and the resale value,” she said.
In a 20-minute presentation later in the meeting, Mularoni stressed the significant time and money he has poured into the proposal, as well as the Planning Commission approvals it had secured.
He said he, in good faith, incorporated input from residents into a plan that would create many local jobs.
“We changed the project use and it’s been done for many reasons,” he said. “I feel as though what we’re doing now is much more compatible as a transitional use on that property.”
Mularoni had a management company in place, a lender lined up and hoped to begin construction late this summer.
Mularoni, who worked out of Forest Lake starting in 1975, also pledged he would stay involved in the project rather than sell it off.
“I’m probably a little closer to home here as a developer than the next guy,” he said. “I plan on staying here. Again, I’m responsible for it 100 percent now.”
The current council cited many of the same concerns held by the council in 2008. Two of the four approvals Mularoni sought Monday – the changes to the comprehensive plan and the zoning – would have required a super-majority approval, or four votes from five members.
Once the council began its discussion, it quickly became clear that those approvals were unlikely.
“It is still a massive property to back right up to the single-family homes,” said Susan Young, the council’s lone member who was in office when the 2008 plan was tabled. She said she expected a significantly bigger reduction in the height of the residential portion.
Mularoni said the original plan contemplated a height of approximately 55 feet, while the revised concept called for a height close to 30 feet.
“Even a 30-foot building, in my mind, is too big in a residential area,” Councilman Mike Freer said.
Sensing the opportunity slipping away, Mularoni interjected with a final plea.
“If I can prove scientifically to the council and the neighborhood (that the building can be sufficiently buffered), would that not be acceptable?” he said. “And if I can’t, can we at least have an opportunity to recoup what we lost during the last Planning Commission process and look at what the alternatives are? … I would like to leave the door open that we can work this thing through. I’m not going away. I’m stuck with this, to the tune of almost $1 million.”
City Administrator Aaron Parrish told the council not to negotiate on the spot. If the applicant wanted to significantly change his proposal, Parrish said, he would need to bring it back through the appropriate channels.
The council was required to list findings of fact to explain its rationale for denying the comprehensive plan and zoning changes. Young provided the approved findings: that Everton Commons would adversely affect the enjoyment and values of nearby properties, and it would not be consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan or zoning code.
Still, Young and Mayor Chris Johnson expressed interest in the commercial aspect of Mularoni’s proposal.
“I do appreciate your comment that you’re here to stay, and we do want to work with you,” Johnson told Mularoni. “I think there is a solution here. As you probably heard some of the comments, there’s some vision in terms of where (the commercial aspect) could go. Hopefully we can find a mutually beneficial arrangement that will satisfy your desire to develop that and will also be a fit for that transitional point going from commercial into residential.”